Have Sword, Will Travel (1969) Review

"Have Sword, Will Travel" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Have Sword, Will Travel" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Chang Cheh
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Li Ching, Wong Chung (Wang Chung), Guk Fung (Ku Feng), Chan Sing (Chen Hsing), Cheng Sam, Wong Kwong Yue, Wong Ching Ho, Cliff Lok, Lau Kong, Hung Lau, Yen Shi Kwan
Running Time: 101 min.

By Numskull

A flawed but nonetheless enjoyable romance-tinged swordplay film from Chang Cheh, from a few years before those lovable Venoms smashed, gouged, and slaughtered their way into our hearts.

Ti Lung is a superb swordsman with a new fiancee and an exciting sinecure as a head caravan guard. Life is swell. Then along comes this contemptible vagabond, played by David Chiang, and the whole package practically goes tits-up. How’s he supposed to do his job properly when his chick is so infuriatingly NICE to Mr. Nobody with his stupid horse? And why does he keep appearing in the same places as they do? AND, how can he be sure he isn’t allied with those despicable bandits who will undoubtedly try to steal the precious silver he’s supposed to be guarding when he merrily leads the caravan right up to the front door of their hideout? The whole thing smells fishier than a mermaid’s vagina. (Note: That has got to be my best line ever. I demand some sort of award, even if it’s only a five dollar gift certificate to McDonald’s that I’ll give to some hungry hobo. -Numskull)

So, Ti Lung’s character is a bit of a tightass. It is David Chiang who provides the heart and soul of the movie, wandering hither, thither and yon in pursuit of the necessities of life. When he sells his beloved horse for a pittance just so he can eat for a while longer, we have to feel sorry for the poor bastard, even though he’s been kind of a pushover for the whole time we’ve known him. He’s an excellent fighter, but he’s definitely not going to win any assertiveness contests anytime soon. When the bandits attack and the bloody climax begins, he fights because he must. But, ultimately, it is his respect (“love” might be pushing it) for Li Ching’s character (Ti Lung’s fiancee) that truly makes him go above and beyond the call of duty, plunging into the enemy-infested tower of badguyness to assist Ti Lung in his uphill battle against villainy…but not before a premonitory vision of the two lovers riding off without a care in the world while he fights against insurmountable odds.

I like the movie, but the fight choreography is a little on the primitive side, and the incomprehensible stupidity of the caravan making a beeline for the robbers’ lair, knowing full well that it’s there, cannot be ignored. There’s very little combat before the great big bandit attack…and that battle, when it finally arrives, is all the more welcome because of this. This would be a pretty good “crossover” movie for Kurosawa and samurai movie fans who avoid the kung fu genre, if you know such a person. Recommended, but not before Chang Cheh’s more well-known works.

Numskull’s Rating: 7/10

By Joe909

An early Chang Cheh movie from the days when choreography wasn’t all that hot and Hong Kong cinema was still getting on its feet, Have Sword, Will Travel is nevertheless an entertaining martial arts film. I’ve always felt that Chang Cheh was a better director in his early movies (though I enjoy his later films more, if that makes any sense), and here his directorial skill is in full effect.

David Chiang plays a sullen drifter obviously inspired by Clint Eastwood’s character in the Sergio Leone films. All Chiang has is his sword and his horse, which he apparently is in love with. Ti Lung and Li Ching are swordfighters who happen to be engaged, and also are the head enforcers of an escort agency (the type that protects cargo shipments). Their teacher is ill and can’t use his kung-fu, so there’s all sorts of worry going on, because the agency has been hired to transport a huge amount of money, and word is the Flying Tiger Stockade gang, headed by the purely evil Ku Feng, is out for it.

The majority of the movie deals with Chiang’s interactions with Ti Lung and Li Ching, as a love triangle develops. For whatever reason, Li gets all tingly over the large-eared, snaggle-toothed Chiang. This of course pisses off Ti Lung, so he and Chiang engage in all sorts of challenges. While this is going on, Ku Feng keeps an eye on the escort agency, trying to figure out who the mysterious Chiang is. Feng sends out his top two henchmen: The Pestilence and The Mute, the latter played by Wang Chung, who by the way is probably the coolest-looking character in the movie. Whereas most of the other characters wear costuming you’d expect from older, more traditional martial arts films, Wang wears the type of outfit you’d expect to see in a latter-day Venoms movie, complete with studded armbands. His character is in fact mute, so all he can do is utter unintentionally-hilarious grunts. The quick fights with these two characters provide the movie with its only mortal combat until the blood-drenched finale.

The problem with the movie is that the escort agency knows Ku Feng is out for the money they’re transporting. They also know that Ku Feng lurks in a towering pagoda that sits along the route they’ll take. So this of course begs the question: why don’t they just take a different route? This is never addressed, the escort instead just plodding along to the pagoda, which is infested with swarthy henchmen who are out for their blood.

Chiang of course ends up joining the agency, only because he secretly feels the same for Li Ching. Once he discovers her teacher is sick and can’t protect her on the journey, he wants to be there. Chiang was Cheh’s early favorite, so he makes him a veritable god when it comes to fighting and swordplay. Despite Chiang’s obvious lack of swordfighting skill, he hacks down innumerable foes, with Ti Lung, the better martial artist, providing a supporting role. The film’s internal and external plots come together during the great final reel, with a full-on massacre and battle at Ku Feng’s pagoda. Those expecting Chang’s requisite tragic ending will not be disappointed.

The movie isn’t as bloody as later Chang Cheh films, or even a few that came before it, such as Golden Swallow or Return of the One-Armed Swordsman. All of the real violence is saved for the end, where we are treated to slow-motion shots of blood erupting from sliced stomachs, arrows puncturing flesh, and swords dicing through opponents. The choreography doesn’t hide the actors’ lack of martial arts skill, though Ti Lung, Ku Feng, and Wang Chung come off as naturals. The fights here are pretty quick, in fact, just a few sword strokes and that’s it. This makes the movie come off as more of a traditional swordplay piece, even like a samurai film, than your average kung-fu movie. I’m not saying it’s worse, just different.

Of special interest is that the end of the film features Lung and Chiang battling their way to the top of the martial artist-filled pagoda. Hey, wait a second: that’s the same ending Bruce Lee proposed for his original Game of Death! But before you cry foul, consider this: Have Sword, Will Travel was released a full three years before Bruce began work on his project. Hmm. I can just see the headlines now: “Was Bruce Lee the Quentin Tarantino of his day?”

Joe909’s Rating: 7/10

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2 Responses to Have Sword, Will Travel (1969) Review

  1. Diane says:

    I just watched this for the first time. I was a little disappointed because I am a huge Chang Cheh fan. Perhaps my expectations were too high. The movie had everything I love, but it just missed the mark. I’m glad it isn’t just me, I thought that maybe I was falling out of love of “The Iron Triangle” movies and that made me a little sad. It is a pretty good movie, just not as good as the really critically acclaimed ones. Oh well, thanks for the reviews.

  2. Pingback: Have Sword Will Travel (1969) | wuxiacinema

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